JEWISH CINCINNATI BICENTENNIAL
Cincinnati Jews look forward by honoring the contributions of their ancestors
This year marks the 200th anniversary of Jewish community life in Cincinnati, which formally began with the founding of Chestnut Street Cemetery. The Jewish community and the City of Cincinnati will commemorate this milestone through public celebrations, multi-generational programs and interactive experiences.
Through connecting with the organizers of the bicentennial, who also are leaders in organizations throughout the city, we gained insight into Cincinnati’s past and visions for our future. We learned how personal connections to Judaism have influenced their faith, values and love of Cincinnati, as they shared perspectives on subjects from the universality of immigrant contributions to our culture, to anti-Semitism, and much more in between.
Read on for perspectives from David Harris, Danielle Minson, Brian Jaffee, Marie Krulewitch-Browne, Rabbi
Gary Zola, J. Miles Wolf, Tamara Harkavy, Kim Heiman and Marc Fisher.
David Harris: A death signifies the birth of a Jewish community in Cincinnati
By Madeline Anderson
It all started in 1821 on Chestnut Street in the West End, when the earliest Jewish settlers to Cincinnati founded the first Jewish cemetery west of the Allegheny Mountains. The Chestnut Street Cemetery not only established a final resting place for Cincinnati’s Jewish people, but began 200 years of rich Jewish tradition in the region.
“It’s not just the cemetery that we’re commemorating, but really the birth of an organized Jewish community here,” said David Harris, executive director of Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati.
JCGC was founded in 2008 to oversee 25 Jewish cemeteries in the region. Harris manages the day-to-day operations as well as its strategic planning and nonprofit functions. He said he feels called by a sense of tradition and duty to maintain these sacred resting places for his community.
“We are really the keepers of the history and the heritage of the community as a whole,” Harris said. It was Harris who first recognized the significance of the Chestnut Street Cemetery’s anniversary.
“Despite certainly having their own religious culture and tradition, Jewish Americans have been active and engaged members of American society since they arrived here,” he said. “The community is more, I always say, than just the sum of its individuals. Some of the people who are buried here have played such an important role in the history of the city in its philanthropic life, in its political life, in the art community. There must be some ethos to the city that allowed for the Jewish community to thrive in the way that it has here.”
Together, JCGC and the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati developed the yearlong Jewish Bicentennial celebration to engage the whole city and recognize the contributions immigrant and minority groups have made to both the city and the country as a whole.
The bicentennial’s kickoff celebration will begin with the rededication of the Chestnut Street Cemetery on Sept. 26. Visitors will be able to admire the cemetery’s improvements, as well as an education plaza about early settlers, complete with an official Ohio Historical Marker. Throughout the year, JCGC programming will focus on: genealogy, complete with an event for families to interview their grandparents; photography, as an initiative for young photographers to display their work; mourning and burial customs, for many faiths to share their end-of-life traditions; and tours of the cemeteries this spring. Harris particularly loves sharing the history of the cemeteries during tours.
Though not originally from Cincinnati, Harris loves experiencing the city’s current cultural renaissance. “It’s really great to be a part of a city that is experiencing so many of the things that I know are going to make it a great place in the future,” he said. “And we’re really looking forward to the opportunity to share this occasion with the city as a whole.”
Danielle Minson: Holding true to the past while making changes for the future
By Madeline Leesman
As president and interim CEO of the Jewish Federation, Danielle Minson will be a presenting partner within the Jewish Bicentennial celebration this year. Minson, raised in the Jewish faith in Cincinnati, has been in her faith-driven career for 25 years. Her work with the Federation in Cincinnati spans 20 years, and she spent a few years in the early 2000s with the organization’s Philadelphia chapter. Minson’s deep-rooted family ties to the city and to her faith have inspired her to continue her family’s legacy through her work with the Federation.
“I have been a proud member of the Jewish community my entire life. I have also worked professionally in the Jewish community throughout my entire career,” said Minson. “I feel very proud that I’ve come of age in our Jewish community, (which) has shaped the adult and Jewish individual that I am.”
Minson’s familial ties to Cincinnati trace back to her grandfather, who came to the Queen City in the early 1900s from the former Soviet Union. “I have a very proud history and legacy of my family in Cincinnati, and my family’s been very actively involved in the Jewish community,” Minson said. At the Federation, Minson discovered in a donor honor roll from 1941 that her grandfather and two great uncles were listed; her grandfather gave $2. “What’s so meaningful to me about that was that it was $2 then, and today it would’ve been the equivalent of $36. And any dollar amount in 18 represents the two Hebrew letters equivalent to ‘chai,’ which means ‘to life, health, luck, fortune,’… and to me, it’s all that, double-chai.”
Minson’s interwoven faith and career life path was heavily influenced by an experience she had in Israel before she began her professional career. In her early 20s, Minson springboarded her career in Israel where she participated in a yearlong volunteerism program that changed her outlook on what kind of work she wanted to spend her life doing.
“When I went on this experience, it further committed me to the Jewish people,” Minson said. “One of the things that I am very proud of with the Jewish Federation system is that we are a network, and through our global network, we are able to provide support on a moment’s notice anywhere to any person around the world. And being in Israel, living in Israel – with other North Americans, who were both learning more about our Jewish identity, learning more about Israel and the Jewish people – when I came back there was no question for me that I wanted to spend my life working in the Jewish community.”
These life-changing moments, as well as Minson’s day-to-day work at the Federation over the years, have inspired her unwavering dedication to the Jewish community. “We certainly are standing on the shoulders of the people who came before us,” Minson said. “I feel this strong sense of responsibility to hold true to the past and also make change for our future.”
Brian Jaffee: Values of Judaism offer a code for success
By Katie Fiorelli
Brian Jaffee is well-poised to plan for what lies ahead while remaining guided by principles from the past. He serves as the CEO of the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati, relaunched during the 2009-10 economic crisis. Most of his days are focused on the foundation’s mission: advancing the health, growth and future of Cincinnati’s Jewish community. He is proud that his organization is helping to fund the Jewish Cincinnati Bicentennial.
Jaffee complements his forward-thinking focus with an identity forged by the ancient teachings of Judaism.
“The sense of history means so much to Judaism,” Jaffee said. “Our rituals and religious practices are so tied in to that history, it encourages you as a participant to feel as if you’re experiencing part of the story, which is meaningful to me as a Jew.”
Judaism is a way of life for Jaffee. “It’s certainly my religious faith, but more than that I feel like I’m part of something bigger than myself. There’s a people, a peoplehood and national component to my Jewish identity. That sense of peoplehood and commonality with other Jews is really important to my life.”
Jaffee grew up in Oberlin, Ohio, and worked in New York City and Washington, D.C., prior to moving back to the Midwest. When he and his wife, Rabbi Shena Potter Jaffee, were ready to start their family, Cincinnati was a natural fit.
“My wife grew up in Cincinnati, so we visited a lot,” Jaffee said. “Her folks are here, and we loved the size and the intimacy of the community – both Jewish and civic. It’s an easy city to get around, yet big enough to have a lot of the attractions, like parks, arts, culture, sports and food, that make life interesting.” Today, Jaffee’s daughters are attending Walnut Hills High School, the third generation in their family to do so.
Cincinnati had long served as an anchor for his wife’s family. Her grandfather fled Poland in 1939 with his family, including Rabbi Jaffee’s young father, two weeks before the Nazis invaded. “The sister of my wife’s grandfather was part of Cincinnati’s Jewish community, and sponsored her brother (Rabbi Jaffee’s grandfather) to immigrate to Cincinnati. When he moved here, Shena’s grandfather didn’t speak a word of English. Within three years he owned his own general store in the West End. The immigrant story never fails to amaze me.”
Despite a family history deeply tied to the pain of anti-Semitism, Jaffee adopts a pragmatic mindset on the state of the world. “There’s very little that concerns me about being a minority. I am not sanguine about the resurgence of anti-Semitism around the country, but it does not preoccupy me. I never take for granted that any religious or ethnic minority is completely safe because there is a lot of hate in the world, but I don’t spend a lot of time telling my children that this is a dangerous world in which to be Jewish,” Jafee said.
His perspective might be buoyed by his experience living here. “One of the special qualities of our local Jewish community is how tight-knit and collaborative the community is,” said Jafee. “From what I’ve heard, in other cities there can be more infighting over turf or territory. I’m proud of how Jewish professionals in Cincinnati look out for each other, root for each other’s successes, and share information and ideas that lift up the entire community.”
This feeling originates from the peoplehood that Jaffee identifies with so deeply. “The values and principles that Judaism teaches offer a code that helps me succeed in the world,” Jaffee said, “and help make the world a better place.”
Marie Krulewitch-Browne: Bridging Jewish identity with arts and culture
By Madeline Anderson
Envisioning a yearlong anniversary celebration of religion, culture and community may come only once a generation. For Marie Krulewitch-Browne, a “Cincinnati transplant with Cincinnati roots,” the celebration revolves deeply around shared identity.
Growing up in an interfaith Catholic-Jewish family in Indianapolis (her father’s Jewish family is from Cincinnati), she had “this exposure to the breadth and depth of what Jewish identity can mean. Being thoughtful about our actions, our intentions and how we spend our time is core to Jewish wisdom, regardless of where you’re at culturally or religiously.”
Krulewitch-Browne serves as the project manager for the Jewish Bicentennial.
“I am helping to support this group of incredible professionals to envision a yearlong celebration where each of our organizations have an opportunity to share more about our work and what we do day-to-day,” she said, “but then also collaborate and collectively kind of co-design partnered experiences that are unique and special for the celebration year.”
Krulewitch-Browne got involved in the bicentennial celebration as the founder of a biannual Jewish and Israeli arts and culture festival called “ish.” The festival was a resounding success after its start in 2017, and she serves as ish’s executive and artistic director.
She created ish for three reasons: to celebrate Jewish artists and get their names out to connect them broadly to Jewish and non-Jewish communities; to welcome a wider Jewish audience who may feel more “-ish” than “Jew” and may not have many opportunities to celebrate non-religious Judaism; and to bring Jewish culture back to the urban core, where Jewish Cincinnatians first settled but have since migrated outward.
“Jewish arts and culture is something that everybody can participate in and appreciate,” Krulewitch-Browne said. “I was looking for opportunities for people to be able to be proud of who they are and proud of their identity.”
This year, ish will present its largest festival to date: a two-day celebration in Washington Park on Sept. 25-26 to kick off the bicentennial, with renowned singer, rapper and beatboxer Matisyahu headlining on Saturday night.
Krulewitch-Browne is particularly proud of both the contributions that Jewish Cincinnatians were able to have and of the region for celebrating and welcoming immigrants and individuals of diverse backgrounds. “I think that’s something our community should continue to rally around for the next 200 years.
“When we all take a moment to celebrate and look a little inward, even as far as who’s around our street corner, and take opportunities to celebrate and connect with neighbors over shared arts experiences, it’s so beautiful. It’s so powerful. And it’s just straight-up so much fun.”
Rabbi Gary Zola: Connect with Judaism through head, heart and hands
By Shasta Taber
“American Jewish history is nothing more than American history,” said Rabbi Gary P. Zola.
A professor at Hebrew Union College, Zola is executive director of HUC’s American Jewish Archives – only the second director since it was established by his mentor, Jacob Rader Marcus, in 1947. The archives will celebrate its 75th anniversary next year.
Zola, on the steering committee for the Jewish Cincinnati Bicentennial, believes that anniversaries are a great time to promote, inspire and to talk about important ideas. “Jews are a portion of the people,” even if a relatively small portion, Zola said. He believes the bicentennial is a way for the whole community to celebrate, because if Cincinnati had not welcomed the Jewish community, the city “would not look the way it does today.”
Zola, born and raised near Chicago, attended Hebrew Union College while pursuing his rabbinical studies. After spending the first year at the Jerusalem campus, a requirement to master the Hebrew language, he moved to the Cincinnati campus and has never left.
He’s quite proud of Cincinnati’s Jewish history – not only with the creation of the American Jewish Archives (the largest in the world), but also the many other important contributions that the Jewish people made to Cincinnati. Among those contributions: the creation in the 1850s of Jewish Hospital, which serves the whole community.
Zola is also proud of how Cincinnati’s big history allows the city to have many assets, like sports teams and cultural groups, that other similarly sized cities do not. Zola believes that if the city continues in the same direction, then the overall community – and the Jewish community with it – will continue to flourish and “maybe even see a renaissance.”
Zola believes that there are three ways to connect to Judaism: Through the head, focusing on the intellectual connection to the Jewish heritage (through the study of ancient writings, literature, and text). Through the heart, with religious traditions (holidays and celebrations). Through the hands, leading to activities that contribute to society. Zola feels most connected by his head, and inspires his ‘hands’ to give back.
He works on community relations – both interfaith and with the African American community. He was also appointed to the U.S. Commission of Preservation of American History Abroad by President Obama, serving between 2011 and 2019, and was on the Academic Advisory Committee for the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation in 2009.
Zola is married; he and his wife, Stefi, have two daughters, two sons and five grandchildren. His sons and grandchildren all live in Cincinnati.
J. Miles Wolf: Bringing an architectural link to Cincinnati’s Jewish History
By Shasta Taber
Photographer J. Miles Wolf is proud to be from Cincinnati. He believes the city has remarkable cultural and architectural assets to showcase, and is pleased that Cincinnati is “beyond our size for the attractions we have.” Wolf is also proud of his 100% Jewish background. His ancestors from Russia, Austria and Germany moved to the West End with many other Jewish families in the 1890s.
Wolf, who operates his studio out of a home carriage house, focuses on special projects now.
One of those special projects was a 2018 FotoFocus exhibit on historical buildings connected to Cincinnati’s Jewish community. The exhibit showcased the locations of historical Jewish buildings, including synagogues. For buildings no longer standing, Wolf found old photographs to impose on the sites where they originally stood, creating collages that gave a sense of the location. People from that time, including some linked to the building or even Wolf’s own ancestors, were included. Due to the attention drawn by the FotoFocus project, he was commissioned for an exhibit at this year’s ish Festival, where he’s “bringing the visual history of Jewish Cincinnati.”
Wolf hopes that the exhibit will allow all people to realize that while relatively small in size, Cincinnati’s Jewish population has always been an integral part of the city. Wolf cites the charitable work that the Jewish community has done from the beginning, as well as how civically engaged they are, something that was not allowed in many of their European homelands.
Wolf spends only a small amount of time capturing photographs, devoting 80-90 percent of his time to research, mainly looking for old photographs. In fact, he spends much more time reading old newspapers from the 1890s and 1920s than reading modern publications. Wolf believes that the stories behind the collages he creates are just as interesting as the photographs themselves, allowing people to gain a connection to the history by learning the backstory of the people and the buildings.
Wolf lives in Avondale with his wife, Maura, and has been an active member of the community, serving in leadership roles with the North Avondale Business Association. Of Wolf’s three grown children (two sons and a daughter), his two sons reside in Cincinnati.
Wolf said he is excited about the direction Cincinnati is taking, watching neighborhoods improve and the park systems grow. He also said he believes that while prejudice (including anti-Semitism) runs very deep, the more it is recognized, the easier it is to fight it.
Tamara Harkavy: A life in Cincinnati built on doing good and giving back
By Madeline Leesman
Tamara Harkavy is serving as co-chair of the bicentennial celebration and as chief development officer of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati. Harkavy’s ties to the city and to Judaism are rooted in her upbringing in the faith and as a lifelong resident of the Queen City. For the bicentennial, she brings a unique perspective from her experience with how Jewish values influenced her entrepreneurial journey and desire to give back to the community.
“The Federation is a machine that was built to do great things for the Jewish community,” Harkavy said. “We get a chance to celebrate and educate and bring people into the tent around Jewish contributions to the city.” Harkavy notes that the Jewish community has contributed to the city in business and commerce, arts and culture, humanity and education, and Jewish life in “really profound ways that have shaped Cincinnati.”
Prior to working at the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, Harkavy was founder and CEO of ArtWorks, a Greater Cincinnati nonprofit that collaborates with businesses and other organizations to create standout works of art and boost the region’s arts reputation. ArtWorks has completed nearly 14,000 public and private art projects.
Harkavy oversaw this impact and expansion over 25 years. She recounts the time when ArtWorks came to fruition, and says she feels tremendous pride and gratitude toward Cincinnati’s Jewish community for their support of ArtWorks from the get-go.
“I know that I could not have done that in any other city but this city. And I couldn’t have done it without the support of the Jewish community,” Harkavy said. “And why the bicentennial is so important is it celebrates the contributions that Jews have made to this city, to the country, and to the world.”
Harkavy’s approach to her career and personal life stem from the Jewish values that have guided her throughout. “My personal philosophy of Judaism is ‘my door is always open,’ and we embrace diversity and cultures, and that makes us better humans,” Harkavy said.
“It is so important in Jewish values to really live a life that is steeped in doing good things and giving back to a community,” she said. “And I think I’ve learned that from my parents, but I see it daily at the Federation. There is so much caring and commitment to the community. Commitment to making sure people are fed, that they have housing, that there’s care for people’s mental health, for people’s physical health. We just have to take care of each other.”
Harkavy anticipates the future of Cincinnati and the role that the Jewish community will continue to play. “I think Cincinnati loves nothing more than to celebrate itself,” Harkavy said. “I’m passionate about Cincinnati, and I’m super proud of our collective Jewish heritage here.”
Kim Heiman: Diversity is key in adding richness to the community
By Katie Fiorelli
It’s a classic story – an unsuspecting, eligible young person falls in love with a Cincinnatian, and the city’s indescribable pull leads the couple back.
That’s the case for Kim Heiman, managing director of Standard Textile, who grew up in Nashville and met her husband, Gary, while working at a stock and commodities brokerage firm in Tel Aviv, Israel. Gary’s deep Cincinnati roots eventually led the couple to move here, where they raised a family, grew their business and became pillars of the local philanthropic community, leading the 2018 United Way campaign.
Today, she is co-chairing the Jewish Cincinnati Bicentennial, drawing on years of experience organizing wide-ranging events, such as co-chairing the 50th and 60th anniversary celebrations of the state of Israel. She is driven to support the bicentennial due to her deep personal connection to religious pluralism and community collaboration. “I like doing things that are creative and inclusive,” Heiman said. “I thought if maybe we were coming out of COVID it might be a great time to celebrate what’s so special about Cincinnati and the Jewish community.”
She has taken her skills in synergistic thinking, honed through managing the innovation group at Standard Textile, to this far-reaching celebration. “Cincinnati’s Jewish community has been very successful in working with various groups in the city,” Heiman said, “reaching out and building relationships with other religions, faith-based groups, and civic groups. To me, that’s the importance of the activities we do as a community. We are able to work cooperatively with other people who share the same values, to make things happen and to improve life for others.”
While unknowns remain because of rising cases of the Delta variant, Heiman is staying hopeful that everyone throughout Greater Cincinnati will find a way to connect with the bicentennial. “I’m very excited about our opening event, a rededication of the Chestnut Street Cemetery downtown, followed by the ish Festival. We’re partnering with so many different organizations and hosting arts events, lectures, tours, concerts; there’s something for everyone,” Heiman said.
After the celebration, Heiman hopes to see a united, invigorated Cincinnati. “I’d like people to say that they learned something about both the history of Cincinnati and the history of the Jewish community in Cincinnati. I would like for them to be excited because we are involving so many different groups of people in this celebration. It’s not just about the Jewish community. I see a lot of beauty in celebrating … how diverse populations can add a richness to the community that uniformity can’t bring.”
Marc Fisher: The man behind Jewish community’s ‘front door’
By Thom Mariner
Marc Fisher has found his niche. The Mayerson Jewish Community Center CEO came to this role later in life, but seems to have discovered the home he didn’t know he needed.
“Not until I was 50 did I finally find the thing that I do best,” he said.
A product of “at least” three generations of Cincinnatians, Fisher worked in the family business – Texo Corporation, a specialty and performance chemical manufacturer – which was sold in 1998. He spent the following years immersed in volunteer work with organizations within and outside the Jewish community: the Jewish Federation, Hillel, United Way, American Heart Association and Seven Hills School, among others. Nine years ago, while serving as board president of the Mayerson JCC, he was leading the search for a new CEO. Someone asked, “Why don’t you just do it?” “I discovered that I could do more for the organization if I was inside,” Fisher said.
“The JCC is really the front door to the Jewish community,” Fisher said. “There are no barriers; whether you are Jewish or not, you can be a part of what happens here.” Although the JCC is known primarily for its fitness center, it is much more. “People are blown away when they see all the things we do – from seniors to early childhood school to performing arts, classes on all kinds of topics, events, speakers, sports, games for young or old. I hope the things we do at the ‘J’ can reinforce positive things about the Jewish community.”
Pre-pandemic, the JCC welcomed 27,000 visitors per month, more than every other Jewish organization in the city combined.
The one big bicentennial project for the JCC is “Under One Roof,” held during Sukkot, the Jewish celebration of harvest in late September. The “J” invites 40 to 50 organizations, Jewish and non-Jewish, to submit an art panel inspired by a theme, which this year is “Renewal and Resilience,” the theme of the bicentennial.
When speaking about how Jewish people have contributed to Cincinnati, Fisher said, “The first thing that comes into my head is how proud I am of my brother, Michael, and how he has led Children’s Hospital the last 13 years. He’s had a major impact on that institution. Also, the rich color Jewish people have added to Cincinnati, from HUC, to the early food businesses – Manischewitz, Kahn’s – to great doctors, like Albert Sabin.”
To Fisher, being Jewish means “living an ethical life and caring about our fellow man. And being an example for my kids and their kids. I’m not a very religious Jew, but I know we have to start with Jews caring for the Jewish people, and hopefully others will follow.”
Fisher loves Cincinnati because “It’s not too big. It’s got everything you could want in bigger cities. It’s a great place to raise a family. I just wish we had better sports teams!”
Jewish Bicentennial Events
Sept. 25, 6-11 p.m.
Matisyahu in concert and Night Market, Washington Park
Sept. 26, 10 a.m.
Kickoff Ceremony, Chestnut Street Cemetery, Chestnut Street at Central Ave., The West End
Sept. 26, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
ish Festival, Washington Park
Sept. 30-Oct. 2
“A City Without Jews,” silent film with new score preformed by CSO & Ensemble Intercontemporain, Mayerson JCC, Amberley Village
Upstander Tour, Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center, Union Terminal